Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Gene Gutowski
Writer: Gérard Brach & Roman Polanski (story)
Cast: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne, Iain Quarrier
Why I DVRed This: I have always loved Roman Polanski, in spite of his personal proclivities. I remember seeing The Tenant in the theater at an impressionable age and being blown away by how strangely vast and close a film could be, and ever since then I’ve made it a point to see Polanski films whenever possible. They’re not always good, but I usually find something I like in them (I even find The Ninth Gate to be somewhat watchable). The Fearless Vampire Killers was a Polanski film I had not seen, so I recorded it.
Presentation on TCM: TCM showed this on Halloween (presumably because it’s about vampires) and used a popup-book-style transition into the film, but the network did not offer any commentary about the film.
Synopsis: Professor Abronsius (MacGowran) and his moronic assistant, Alfred (Polanski), are on the hunt for vampires in 19th century Transylvania. While staying at a small inn, they become interested in the terror that seems to plague the town, and Alfred falls for the beautiful Sarah Shagal (Tate), the innkeeper’s daughter. She becomes the victim of Count von Krolock (Mayne), and the titular vampire hunters go on the chase to get her back.
Analysis (contains spoilers): So you know how I said I usually find something to like in all of Polanski’s films? Well this one might be the exception. Wow is it bad. Even worse, it just isn’t entertaining. Rather, it seems to be some kind of attempt by Polanski to make an intentionally bad movie, but that idea seems like the sort of thing a clever high school student would try to do as an in-joke for an English class skit. So, either Polanski had no idea how to do satire, or what Polanski thinks is funny is just plain lousy.
The film is done in a campy style—with cheesy special effects (for instance, we see cannons moved in a sped-up slow motion like from a silent movie), overacting or intentionally poorly delivered lines, and slapstick sequences. The camp aesthetic can be fun if done right and especially if the jokes are funny, but that’s exactly the problem with The Fearless Vampire Killers—it simply isn’t funny. Instead, it’s just smug. (Roger Ebert’s review of the movie is actually really funny and worth a read—I bring it up just to show you that I’m not some joyless misanthrope who doesn’t know what laughter is but to highlight my point that no one would find this shitty movie funny.)
I think the film was supposed to be a send-up of Hammer Films, the maker of titillating b-movie horrors of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. But the problem with sending up Hammer is that no one took Hammer seriously, thus making it completely pointless to satire or send up. (And some of the Hammer films are kind of fun in a schlocky sense, if one is in the right mood for them.) Instead, The Fearless Vampire Killers comes across as a softcore porn like the type played on Cinemax (Busty Aliens from Planet Bang, The Erotic Ms. Dracula, The Invisible Bikini Model—these are all fake titles but only a little bit fake) but, of course, without any sex (or sex-like motions, as is more common in softcore porn).
Not that the film doesn’t want to titillate. The movie seems obsessed, for instance, with showing Sharon Tate in a bathtub. It is in the tub that she is first attacked by the vampiric Count von Krolock, and it is while she is in the tub that Polanski’s Alfred tries to save her but realizes she is fully committed to the new vampire lifestyle. And, to be fair, there are worse sights than Sharon Tate in a tub, but Polanski’s obsession with it is creepy in light of what we all know about Polanski, young girls, and tubs.
Anyway, this movie is a huge shame. Polanski made it between two delightful films—Cul-de-Sac and Rosemary’s Baby, the latter of which proved he at least knew how to make a good horror movie—and I guess it’s best to look at it as simply a misfire, especially since the movie seems in so many ways un-Polanski. There are some of his usual traits—cynicism, paranoia, a general mood of weirdness—but instead the film seems to be something new that Polanski just wanted to do for fun. All of the film, thus, could be read as a rejection or at least a reevaluation of all his themes. For instance, the paranoia that grips Rosemary, Jake Gittes, or Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion (paranoia that always turns out to be warranted) is replaced in Vampire with denial—everyone in the village pretends that there is nothing weird going on, Sarah sees nothing wrong with being abducted by the Count, and the Count’s gay son does not understand why Alfred would scorn his rejections.
Similarly, Polanski’s films often feel claustrophobic—all of the Apartment Trilogy pretty much take place exclusively in apartments that feel tighter and tighter as the films go on, Polanski’s MacBeth seems to live in a place with unnaturally low skies—but in Vampire, the sets seem expansive, in a way. The backgrounds all look like Chagall paintings (Sarah and the innkeeper’s last name is Shagal too!) lending the film a dreamlike feel, but the coloring of the film and the lighting make everything so obviously look like a soundstage (as is typical in camp) that the sets feel both expansive and constricting at once. That is, the sets seem to trap in the action of the film, to admit that the limits to the campy horror on screen stay in a very small space, almost like the borders of an open-world video game (like a Grand Theft Auto, where the character eventually hits a limit point and gets bounced back into the real world or meets a worse fate). So the audience feels kind of claustrophobic, even if the characters in the movie don’t.
Again, some of this could be fun (the sets are nice looking, I swear!) if everything about it were just humorous. Literally, though, the only thing I found remotely funny is Alfred’s statement to Sarah, who very clearly does not want to be “saved” from the monster’s ball at the end of the film: “It is I. Life has meaning once more.”
The only other mildly fun things about this movie are the fact that it makes use of all the vampire tropes (e.g., the vampire has no reflection, garlic keeps it away, he only comes out at night, like “Maneater”) without explaining them—at least Polanski expects the audience to be in on his in-joke. And there is something still remarkable about seeing Sharon Tate on screen. She is, after all, principally famous as a murder victim, and it’s sort of surreal to see her doing what she wanted to be famous for. I wonder about those people who are mostly famous for being victims—Tate, the Black Dahlia, Nicole Brown Simpson—I don’t know what I wonder about them, but it does seem to say something about our culture that we have lists of people who are mostly known for being murdered. I don’t know if that is a comment on the prevalence of violence in our culture or about the trappings of fame and scandal. I’m curious to read this book though.
Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: No. It reminds me of those bad Woody Allen films from the same time period, the ones that feel more “hip” and “clever” than funny (Sleeper, Bananas). Actually, in retrospect, the parallels between Allen and Polanski are uncanny—both are inconsistent but often brilliant filmmakers whose personal sexual proclivities are so revolting that we have to be willing to completely separate the artist from the art in order to enjoy it. But anyway, let’s all look the other way and pretend that Polanski isn’t detestable and also that he never made this schlocky piece of shit. That way we can all talk about how great the Apartment Trilogy, Chinatown, MacBeth, and so many other of his films are!